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Twenty Years After Its Genocide, Rwanda Still Has Issues

Feel-good stories about Rwanda oversimplify the supposed transformation of a country that once seemed without hope.
Photo by Russell Watkins/Dept. for International Development

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

On April 7, 30,000 Rwandans filled Amahoro Stadium in Kigali, the nation’s capital, to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people dead. The centerpiece of the day was the world’s most upsetting school play, a re-enactment of what happened in those terrible months complete with a field of dead victims and an educational prologue, in which eight Russian soldiers played the parts of the Belgian colonists who exacerbated divisions between the Hutu majority who turned on the minority Tutsi population and their moderate Hutu fellows. These Russian soldiers, called on to be actors for the day, then swapped their pith helmets for blue UN berets and drove away over the dead bodies, fleeing before the cavalry arrived in the form of troops from the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).


During the re-enactment, screams and cries filled the stadium and distressed audience members had to be carried out and placed on mattresses in a specially designated room in the basement of the stadium. The finale, in which RPF troops, played by present-day Rwandan soldiers, carried the dead victims from the stadium, brought cheers from the crowd. The underlying message, though, was rather less joyful. The Tutsi-led RPF are still in power and Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, was their commander in 1994. “We saved you, so don’t forget it,” he was reminding his audience. The Rwandan state has consistently discouraged talk about ethnicity but that does not change the fact that a Tutsi-led organization is ruling a Hutu-dominated country.

Rwanda commemorates 20th anniversary of 1994 genocide. Read more here.

There have been more chilling reminders of this power than a stadium re-enactment, though. When Kagame’s former head of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, dared to question the wisdom of his master, he was thrown in jail. In 2007, he fled to South Africa, from where he accused his former government of carrying out a series of political killings and labeled Kagame a “dictator.” This past New Year’s Day, he was found dead in a hotel in Johannesburg. Kagame’s response was not pleasant. “Rwanda did not kill this person,” he said. “But I add that, I actually wish Rwanda did it. I really wish.” Kagame followed this up with some more unnerving public pronouncements. “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it,” he declared, in a speech delivered in Kinyarwanda. He then added — in slow, deliberate English, accompanied by a thousand-yard stare — “it’s a matter of time.”


Karegeya’s case is a single example of the authoritarianism Kagame has become known for. It is because of this and the country’s economic success that Rwanda is often referred to as a “new Singapore.” The Rwandan premiere is somewhat similar to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s tyrannical but ruthlessly efficient former prime minister. Like a number of Israeli leaders, Kagame has used the memory of genocide to justify stamping out any dissenting voices. Don’t like the government? You may as well be saying the genocide was a good thing. An opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post even compared Kagame and Binyamin Netanyahu. Favorably.

Rival politicians in Rwanda — most notably Victoire Ingabire — and a slew of journalists have been imprisoned under genocide ideology laws that are meant to stop anyone from downplaying the slaughter in 1994. In reality, these are used to neutralize anyone who disagrees with Kagame. Essentially, he didn’t put together an army in exile and then liberate his country from one of history’s most terrible atrocities in order to listen to women and liberals tell him he wasn’t being very nice. The same applies to his feelings about foreign donors, who have cut aid to Rwanda because of its support of rebel groups in the Congo, most notably M23, who were defeated last year but are sure to re-emerge in a new form soon.

Disturbing echoes of Rwandan genocide emerge in South Sudan. Read more here.


This isn’t just the story of a dictator intent on enriching his inner circle and no one else, though. Rwanda’s GDP has grown steadily since 1995, child mortality rates are much lower and the country tops the global league tables for the percentage of female parliamentarians. Those who’ve met Kagame talk of a fiercely intelligent man obsessed with Rwanda’s development and when you consider the seriousness of the 1994 genocide (not to mention previous mass killings), the restraint shown by the RPF — at least on Rwandan soil — has been relatively admirable. He's had some concrete domestic policy successes too, the "One Cow" per poor family program — which is exactly what it sounds like — has helped to reduce poverty and also democratized cattle ownership, while also removing the connection between Tutsi and cattle. Milk is now the country's top export.

In part, it’s these success stories and the West’s love of a good old-fashioned Hollywood redemption yarn that led to a series of feel-good stories about Rwanda around the 20th anniversary. Leading from the front was everyone’s favorite ex-world leader for hire, Tony Blair, with an article entitled “20 years after the genocide, Rwanda is a beacon of hope.” Presumably the fact that Blair was formerly a well-remunerated advisor of Kagame's had no bearing on the praise heaped upon his government.

The New York Times ran a photo story called “Portraits of Reconciliation,” which was made up of a series of pictures of a Hutu with a Tutsi they’d hurt in some way during the genocide. The subtitle was “20 years after the genocide in Rwanda, reconciliation still happens one encounter at a time,” and it was, as the website Africa is a Country pointed out, a “profoundly banal” piece of journalism that “reduces violence to a set of meaningless outbursts.” It also reinforced that old preoccupation the Western media has with “tribal” violence, as every single shot placed Hutu in direct opposition to Tutsi.


Elsewhere, the Daily Telegraph went with, “Twenty Years on, Rwanda is a land of hope not hatred,” and the Times of London ran a hymn to the merits of Western intervention, which served as a reminder of why this tiny country in the middle of Africa garners so much conflicted attention in North America and Europe: guilt. Western leaders knew in advance that extremism was on the rise and that, in the words of Kagame, “there were camps for militias to carry out the killings.” It was following French training and with French weapons that much of the killing was done but having failed so disastrously to intervene in Somalia (think Black Hawk Down and the Battle of Mogadishu), world powers stayed away and the UN stayed impotent. Thus, the genocide became a great “failure” of the West which, in turn, has paved the way for Rwanda’s “rehabilitation” to be viewed as a great triumph, built on the aid of foreign powers and the wisdom of men like Tony Blair and Bill Gates.

Don’t believe me? Just check Blair’s website.

While it has been easy for everyone (the UN, Belgium, the US) except the French to apologize for their part in the 1994 genocide, it has been far less easy to acknowledge the part played by imperialism and the guilt that comes from that, which cannot be alleviated simply by trumpeting the fast broadband connections in Kigali, or the fact that there are no slums in the capital (which is actually because the government won't allow slums in its gleaming capital, not because Rwanda is no longer very poor — it is still very poor). Kagame knows this and there is a genuine sense of “Why should we give a fuck about the people who didn’t give a fuck about us?” to some of his work that is admirable, as is his line on the “selective” justice of the International Criminal Court.


A 13-year-old girl, a slaughtered family, and life after the Rwandan genocide. Read more here.

In his address at Amahoro Stadium, Kagame said, of France’s part in the genocide, that “no country is powerful enough, even when they think that they are, to change the facts. After all, les faits sont têtus [facts are stubborn].” In many ways, he is right to take the French and Belgians to task over their colonialism and their part in the genocide, but while that may be the case, his motives are of course also the motives of a politician and, as Africa Confidential said of the commemoration, “For a heartfelt commemoration of a terrible tragedy, it was an event that was conspicuously marked by geopolitics.”

Kagame has been president since 2000, won an election in 2003 and then again in 2010, and was considered the de-facto leader from 1994. Rwanda’s constitution allows for two seven-year terms but already there are suggestions that the president will stay for a third term. Kagame went to the same school as his old pal, Uganda premiere Yoweri Museveni, who he is now being compared to, a former golden boy turned difficult proposition. The Rwandan has got to a point many leaders — including Tony Blair — get to, where they feel like no-one else could really do it as well as them and that, because of that, they should just stay in power indefinitely.

Democracy is something that Kagame pays lip service to but it’s not something he’s interested in. Kigali is now a gleaming PR exercise, free of slums and beggars, but how did it come to be like that? Robert Mugabe, after all, cleared Harare’s slums because he couldn’t stand to look at them from his window any more. Tony Blair talks of a Biblical-style transformation in a country that once seemed destroyed. We should know it’s just not that simple.

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow